There is no shortage of funny moments in Ruby Cramer’s recent profile of Eric Adams. New York’s new mayor professes to the Politico writer that he believes the city has a “special energy” that comes from its placement atop a store of rare gems and stones. He cops to being buddies with both Fat Joe and Bill Clinton (Adams, like many a New Yorker, worships celebrity, which is why he’s a fixture at Zero Bond, an exclusive club in NoHo where such types circulate; in Cramer’s profile, he mentions seeing Kate Hudson there just the other night). He talks about his claim to veganism — though by now, it’s clear that Adams eats fish, too. He addresses the argument over whether he even lives in New York, an issue on which evidence remains inconclusive.
These eccentricities are irresistible to the press. Adams is one of the weirdest people ever elected to a position as visible as mayor of New York. In Cramer’s profile, Adams recounts a reporter friend telling him, “You get clicks, Eric.” No writer can forgo what he offers: Ask me about whether a “plant-based-centered lifestyle” not only cured my diabetes but brought back vision in my left eye; ask me if I became a cop after robbing a sex worker as a teenager. (The details of the latter story seem to change in every telling; and as for the former, let’s call it suspect.) As Adams tells Cramer of his relationship to the press, “When I got elected in the primary, I said, ‘You guys are gonna have the most fun you’ve ever had covering a candidate.’”
But a consensus is emerging in the cottage industry of Adams dispatches: the writer admits to knowing that a focus on quirks rather than policies is what the mayor wants; they wink at the reader, acknowledging the gambit, and then they take the bait anyway.
Take this latest profile. “Adams has an agenda, but he also has a way of asking people to stand with him because of who he is, as opposed to what he wants to do,” writes Cramer at the end of the piece. Yet in the thousands of words that precede that sentence, there is little discussion of said agenda. (Cramer’s characterization near the start of the piece is symptomatic: “his agenda is best understood as a desire to restore something more ephemeral to his hometown: a feeling, a sense of confidence. He wants, simply stated, ‘to reenergize the spirit of New York.’”) The New York Times ran a similarly detailed profile that did much the same thing, typified by its headline, “What Kind of Mayor Might Eric Adams Be? No One Seems to Know” — as if Adams’s willingness to be everything to everyone, his propensity to lie and contradict himself, to take one side in Brownsville and the other in Midtown, makes it impossible to draw conclusions from his relationships to billionaires and real estate developers.
Even the rare moments when substance appears in these light investigations are telling. Cramer writes that “Adams has shielded the NYPD from budget cuts and worked hand-in-hand with Gov. Kathy Hochul to relocate the homeless from the subway to new shelters.” She characterizes the plan to “relocate the homeless” as “a friendly and productive city-state collaboration not seen here in years.” Which, sure, it is notable that the city and the state are not warring over this idea; that’s a change from the adversarial relationship between former governor Andrew Cuomo and Adams’s predecessor Bill de Blasio. But shouldn’t a journalist give a few details about the plan itself?
The “friendly and productive collaboration” concerns what to do with New York City’s homeless. Last month, Adams announced a plan to remove them from the subway and clear all homeless encampments from the transit system. The plan entails deploying additional NYPD officers to enforce a “zero-tolerance policy” toward people sheltering on subway platforms or trains, increasing enforcement of violations like sleeping inside a subway car. Some of these officers will be part of thirty joint-response teams composed of personnel from the Department of Health, the Department of Homeless Services, the NYPD, and community groups As the New York Times reported, the teams will include mental health professionals with the power to order involuntary hospitalizations for “people who they deem a danger to themselves or others.”
“No more just doing whatever you want,” said Adams at a press conference announcing the crackdown. He has compared homelessness to cancer, saying, “You can’t put a band-aid on a cancerous sore.” Rather, “you must remove the cancer and start the healing process.”
The nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless advocacy group responded to Adams’s statement, saying, “It is sickening to hear Mayor Adams liken unsheltered homeless people to a cancer,” noting that the NYPD itself has acknowledged that those who shelter in the transit system do so because they believe it is their safest option. Shelly Nortz, the organization’s deputy executive director for policy, cautioned against the expansion of involuntary commitment, which in practice often means transporting an individual to an overburdened health care facility where they may be involuntarily medicated and released back onto the street shortly after arrival.
While Adams’s plan also calls for additional drop-in centers and “increased availability” for around five hundred Safe Haven and stabilization beds — a transitional housing program — details on such expansions are scarce. Adams claims his plan is not about criminalizing the homeless, but when taken in conjunction with his proposed $615 million budget cut to Homeless Services — approximately 20 percent of the agency’s budget — and the expiration of the eviction moratorium in a city where rent is skyrocketing, it is hard to see how this could possibly be true. The first week of the crackdown resulted in 143 arrests and the removal of 455 people from the subway system, with 1,533 tickets issued for rule violations.
Outreach teams connected a mere twenty-two people with shelters in that first week. It is no secret that many people who lack housing consider shelters worse than sleeping outdoors, with shelters seen as dangerous, carceral, and likely to expose one to COVID. New York City’s own data shows that between May 2020 and January 2022, of the thousands of homeless people approached by outreach workers, a miniscule number wound up in shelters.
As The City reported, during that period, “9,200 individuals accepted transportation to shelters, but only 3,100 accepted placement once they arrived. And of that number, only about 250 were still in shelters as of this month — about 8% of those who initially accepted a ride.”
In the same article, The City spoke to an officer who kicked a homeless person out of the subway on the first day of Adams’s plan. She “confided that the NYPD had given them little instruction on how to handle these situations other than to tell them to enforce the rules and ‘Just get them out.’” Sleeping outside in the New York winter is always grueling, but the stakes here have been heightened with news that over the weekend someone shot two homeless men who were sleeping on the streets in Manhattan, killing one of them, in what the police say is a shooting spree targeted against the homeless that encompasses both New York and Washington, DC. Responsibility for such violence can’t be laid at the feet of any elected official, but neither is the attempt to create a Rudy Giuliani–style panic around homelessness entirely irrelevant — Adams is pushing those without housing onto the street, where someone is now shooting them.
The Coalition for the Homeless isn’t the only organization to criticize Adams’s plan. Beth Haroules, senior staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, told The City that “it’s a very magical kind of thinking that we’re going to get people out of the subway when you don’t have any place to put them.” In response to the news of the targeted attacks against the homeless, Housing Works, a nonprofit fighting AIDS and homelessness, addressed a tweet to Adams: “Whatever you want to call subway sweeps this year, they will always fail. People fear shelters, survive on the streets, and the constant criminalization of street survival ends like this. Is this what you want?”
And all of these details concern just one of Adams’s priorities. Similar criticism exists about his reinstatement of the NYPD’s plainclothes unit, his desire to bring back solitary confinement, his comments about bail reform. The through line is a cruel acceptance, if not celebration, of violence against those who make the rich uncomfortable and thereby threaten financial investment in the city.
Adams is a critic of cancel culture who is quick to call his opponents racist (he once likened a Twitter critic to the Ku Klux Klan); a former cop who prioritizes the police above almost any other constituency, even as he is powerfully disliked by some on the force, creating a tense dynamic in a city where the cops operate as a semiautonomous militarized force; a staunch opponent of defunding the police who appointed the new NYPD commissioner in front of a mural of Malcolm X, Nat Turner, Angela Davis, and Huey Newton. For those who equate symbols and substance, who have never read Adolph Reed Jr or James Forman Jr, he’s confounding. For others, his role is obvious: Adams as one possible future for the Democratic Party, avatar of the vibe shift, an answer to the George Floyd protests who stands shoulder to shoulder with the correction officers’ union as he vows to reinstate solitary.
How can journalists spend time with Adams and not bring back insight into any of this? Read the coverage and there’s little more than a hint of the contradictions, the tension, the violence, the reaction, all of it embodied in a man who knows what he portends, who tells Cramer that his entire life has prepared him for this moment in history. Adams is running rings around the media. He holds up a shiny object — his diet, his stationary bike, his clubbing — and it’s as if writers forget he isn’t just some celebrity but an elected official whose decisions can affect millions of people. It was funny at first; by now, it’s stupid.